History: Ted Grant – Militant pioneer dies

Ted Grant, one of the founders of Militant, the forerunner of the Socialist Party, has died at the age of 93, in London.

Grant, of South African origin, was one of the foremost leaders of the Marxist, Trotskyist movement of the last 60 years. He made a major contribution on a number of important theoretical and political issues, such as his analysis of the phenomena of ‘proletarian bonapartism’, the development of deformed workers’ states in Eastern Europe, and China in the post-1945 situation.

At first, he leaned towards an analysis of Russia and Eastern Europe as ‘state capitalist’, but soon corrected this. Ironically, the main theoretician of what is now the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), the late Tony Cliff, took up these discarded ideas and developed them into his erroneous theory of ‘state capitalism’. Ted Grant’s reply, in his pamphlet, ‘The Marxist Theory of the State’, even today is a very effective answer to ‘state capitalist’ ideas and an analysis of the processes at work in the Stalinist states in the post-1945 situation. The same was true of his analysis of the Chinese Revolution and on a number of other issues.

Even at that stage, of course, his best period politically, Ted Grant was not politically infallible, as some of his latter-day supporters maintain. He correctly opposed going into the Labour Party when the time was inappropriate in the late 1940s, only to capitulate to those Trotskyist forces that joined the Labour Party after the Revolutionary Communist Party disintegrated in 1949. He rationalised this on the basis that ‘it didn’t really matter’, given the isolation of Marxism, whether Marxists were in the Labour Party or outside. In fact, at that stage, an independent tactic would have been much more effective, with work concentrated in the trade unions.

Nevertheless, Ted Grant did maintain a thread in defending the basic analysis of Trotskyism against ultra-leftism and opportunism. This allowed a new generation, like Keith Dickinson, Ted Mooney, and Terry Harrison, to join the Trotskyist movement, with others, like myself and Tony Mulhearn, joining in Liverpool, a little later. This was the main base, together with London, and isolated ones and twos, in areas like South Wales and Nottingham, of what subsequently became Militant.

The launch of Militant

In his obituary of Ted Grant, Alan Woods claims that, "in 1964, we decided to launch a new paper called Militant. We held our first meeting in a small room in a pub in Brighton". This is a blatant piece of historical falsification, which is, unfortunately, a trait of his small organisation when dealing with the history of Trotskyism in Britain. In fact, Alan Woods was not involved in any of the activity in the Labour Party Young Socialists on a national scale until after 1964. Militant was founded in 1964 but it certainly was not established "in a pub in Brighton", where Alan Woods just happened to be studying as a student at that stage.

The founding of Militant was a product of discussions mainly in Liverpool and London. This farcical attempt to rewrite history does no justice either to the memory of Ted Grant or the contribution that he made. It is a self-serving attempt by Alan Woods to enhance his ‘historic’ profile. I was elected as the first editor of Militant, in 1964, and was the only full-time worker, in 1965, with Keith Dickinson working with me as an invaluable unpaid ‘part-timer’ for the paper from 1965. This began a long collaboration with Ted Grant, which was not always easy, but which lasted for 25 years.

Ted Grant’s strength was his defence of the main propositions of Marxism applied to contemporary events. His weaknesses, evident from the very beginning of our collaboration, was his dogmatic approach and his incapacity to recognise and develop the independent talents of others, particularly the younger generation who were filling out the ranks of Militant. This was tolerated by other Militant leaders on the basis that, in general, there was political agreement, although important clashes took place on some issues, particularly on nuances and approaches.

Ted Grant made a very important contribution in the 1960s and 1970s to the development of Militant as a significant force in the British labour movement. However, he was sometimes found wanting, particularly in the rapidly changing situation in the 1980s. For instance, his lack of tactical awareness and flair was a source of conflict with some of the main figures in the Liverpool drama, from 1983-87. At this period, while Ted Grant was respected by the supporters and leaders of Militant, it had been evident for some time that his best days, particularly on the public platform, were behind him.

This was not the first time in the history of the Marxist movement that a leader can play a leading pioneering role at one stage, but prove to be lacking once the situation changes. The tragic example of Plekhanov, the ‘father of Russian Marxism’, comes to mind. He was also decisive in the period when the task was to put down roots, to stubbornly defend Marxism against opportunism and ultra-leftism. But Plekhanov proved to be utterly helpless in the face of great events, when the rhythm of the class struggle and history changed.

New times, new tests

As Militant grew to become the most effective and largest Trotskyist movement in Britain and most of Europe, it was necessary to present our ideas in the most popular and accessible form, without watering them down or hiding what we stood for. Other younger speakers and leaders of Militant were more involved and able to fulfil this task than Ted Grant. This in no way devalued his past contribution nor undermined the role he could still play in the development of Militant and Marxist ideas.

However, Ted Grant did not recognise his limitations, which led to increasing clashes in the ranks of Militant in the late 1980s. This was combined with his failure of analysis on key contemporary events. One such occasion was the October 1987 ‘Black Monday’ financial collapse on Wall Street. Ted Grant argued that this was a precursor to a new 1929-type slump. This was opposed by me, Lynn Walsh, and the majority of what became the Socialist Party.

Similar clashes developed on other issues, such as perspectives for South Africa, and the issue of Stalinism, at a time when the signs were there that not only was it disintegrating but that a return to capitalism, not something previously encountered, could take place in Russia and Eastern Europe. Ted Grant and Alan Woods, because of their incapacity to understand the changed situation, gave critical support to the organisers of the coup in the Soviet Union in 1991. They justified this on the basis that Trotsky had envisaged the position of ‘critical support’ for a section of the bureaucracy. However, the bureaucracy had so degenerated there was no wing, in 1991, which still adhered to the planned economy.

Ironically, as we have seen earlier, one of Ted Grant’s great historical merits was his analysis in the post-1945 situation of the development of the Stalinist states of Eastern Europe under the pressure of Russian Stalinism. However, he was incapable of recognising the changed reality in these states in the early 1990s. Together with Alan Woods, it was only in the late 1990s (!) that he came to the conclusion that capitalism had indeed returned to Russia.

This was the background to the split of the Ted Grant/Alan Woods group from the ranks of Militant in 1992. He had failed to win support for his ideas, only receiving 7% of the vote at a national congress of Militant supporters. The ostensible basis of the split was the launch of an open organisation in Scotland, which was denounced as a "departure from the work of 40 years".

The ‘tactic’ of work in the Labour Party had, unfortunately, become so ossified in the minds of Grant and Woods that it became a permanent, undeviating ‘strategy’, irrespective of the collapse of the ‘traditional organisations’. Unbelievably, they maintain that socialists and Marxists should still work within the Labour Party because it is still a ‘workers’ party’ at its base!

After the split of 1992, their groups in Britain, and elsewhere, were on the margins of the labour movement. They are not a factor in most of the crucial issues confronting the trade union and labour movement. Alan Woods has become a ‘benevolent adviser’ to Hugo Chávez and, latterly, has also abandoned the perspective of ‘workers’ democracy’ for Cuba. He believes that Fidel Castro is ‘critically’ doing the job of Marxism and Trotskyism in Cuba. This is ostensibly because of Castro’s latest attacks on ‘corruption’, and his intent to mobilise a layer of young people against this. However, while recognising the great gains of the Cuban revolution, if they are to be maintained, it is vital that workers’ democracy is established in Cuba, both for the country and for the wider revolution in Latin America.

So, in marking the death of Ted Grant the new generation of socialists should recognise his great contribution on the level of ideas, in one of the most difficult periods in history for the Marxist movement. At the same time, it is necessary to learn from his mistakes and avoid them if we are to build a movement capable of establishing democratic socialism in Britain and worldwide.



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July 2006